Football: Dreams at the Racecourse

Simon Turnbull talks to the Wrexham midfielder who has Wembley on his mind
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The Independent Online
If Wrexham celebrate victory in the fifth round of the FA Cup at St Andrews this Saturday, Peter Ward will get a pitch-side view of the red dragon flags flying high. When the Welsh club last made it through to the final eight of the Cup their midfield general was one of 10,000 locked out of St James' Park. "I went with my uncles but we ended up listening to the match on the car radio," Ward recalls of the February night in 1978 when 42,000 packed the Newcastle ground to see Wrexham deny Blyth Spartans a quarter-final place with a 2-1 fifth-round replay win.

That Wrexham team, managed by Arfon Griffiths and featuring Dai Davies, John Roberts, Mickey Thomas, Bobby Shinton and Dixie McNeil, is still revered at the Racecourse Ground as the club's best ever. They won the Third Division title and were denied an FA Cup semi-final appearance by losing to the odd goal in a five-goal thriller against Arsenal. The class of '96-'97, under the astute management of Brian Flynn, one-time dynamo of Burnley, Leeds and Wales, have recaptured the spirit of '78 and shown signs of emulating the celebrated old boys - on the Wembley trail, if not in the league, though a Second Division play-off place remains a realistic goal.

Their 1-0 win at West Ham in the third round, secured by Kevin Russell's last-minute winner, was overshadowed by the demonstration it prompted from the restless East End natives. But Flynn's swashbucklers produced the same blend of fight and finesse in twice coming from behind to secure their trip to Birmingham with a 4-2 win at Peterborough on Tuesday night. The shaven-headed Russell scored twice. But Wrexham's vital first goal, from the coveted Karl Connolly's cross, was headed in by a player who has emerged from the same far-flung North-east outposts that produced such spirited FA Cup heroes in Blyth Spartans.

Ward, 32, played many a Northern League game against the Spartans after making a scoring debut as a teenage centre- forward with Chester-le-Street Town in an FA Cup first qualifying round tie. "It was a 3-1 win," he said, "away to West Allotment, I think." After a four-month trial with Newcastle came to nought - despite scoring on his St James' Park debut in a reserve-team which included Paul Gascoigne - Ward feared he might spend his playing days ploughing a grass-roots furrow at places like West Allotment. He was 22 and a tiler by trade by the time Huddersfield gave him his big break.

By the time Flynn signed him, for pounds 50,000 at the start of last season, he had played in the fifth round of the FA Cup (in the Rochdale team beaten by Crystal Palace in 1990) and made four Wembley appearances (defeats for Stockport in two Autoglass finals and two play-off finals). He had also made an impressive transformation from a rough-cut hustling striker into what the Stockport programme described before his departure as: "Our Bryan Robson, a tough-tackling but skilful midfielder with a wicked free-kick."

It was not such a far-fetched analogy. Ward, in fact, has been a lifelong friend of the Robson family. He sat next to Gary, Bryan's youngest brother, at Pelton Roseberry School near Chester-le-Street. Victory at St Andrews, of course, could set up a quarter-final meeting with Robson's Middlesbrough.

"All the lads wanted to play Chelsea in the fifth round," Ward said, "but there'll be a 25,000 sell-out crowd at Birmingham. It'll be a great atmosphere. We'll have 3,500 supporters there. They've got a lot of experience but we won at West Ham and we believe we'll have a good chance if we play as well as we can. Wrexham were on the downward path a few years ago but Brian Flynn has turned the club round. The fact that we've resisted pounds 500,000 offers for Karl Connolly shows that we have ambition."

Ward has not always been such a happy soul at Wrexham. He was one of the 10,000 Wearsiders who saw Sunderland win there on the final day of the 1978-79 season - only to lose out on promotion to Crystal Palace. An FA Cup quarter-final at the Racecourse would do much to erase that unhappy memory.